Virginia scores blowout win, routs Seattle, 83-43
Junior forward Akil Mitchell shines, Cavaliers earn largest win under coach Tony Bennett
The absence of Mike Scott from the Virginia basketball team’s starting lineup had been all too apparent in the team’s first three games. The Cavaliers entered Saturday’s game against Seattle as the lowest scoring team in the ACC by a wide margin, having failed to top 60 points in each of their first three games.
Scott scored a career-high 33 points and corralled 14 rebounds against this same Redhawk team a season ago to lead Virginia to a narrow 83-77 victory. Saturday, junior forward Akil Mitchell made Scott’s departure sting a little less with a dominant performance that brought back memories of the now-Atlanta Hawk power forward.
Mitchell finished with 14 points and a career-high 16 rebounds to lead the Cavaliers (2-2, 0-0 ACC) to a blowout 83-43 win, their largest victory under coach Tony Bennett. He completed his double-double before the end of the first half, finishing the opening period with 10 points and 12 rebounds — one more than the Redhawks’ (1-1, 0-0 WAC) team total of 11.
“Without a steady leading scorer like Mike, we really expected to spread the ball around this year,” Mitchell said. “It was great to see a lot of guys in double figures and that can’t do anything but build everybody’s confidence.”
Three freshmen joined Mitchell with double-digit points, including forward Mike Tobey, who finished with a game-high 17. The 6-foot-8 freshman forward Evan Nolte demonstrated his versatile inside-out game, knocking down two three-pointers and scoring 10 points. Freshman guard Justin Anderson put on a one-man highlight reel in the second half, hammering home three thunderous dunks and finishing with 11 points.
“I think all of us [freshman] can definitely play,” Tobey said. “We got to play in big spots and we contributed today.”
Redshirt freshman point guard Teven Jones, who was making his collegiate debut, scored just four points but shined as the Cavaliers’ primary ball handler in the absence of injured senior point guard Jontel Evans. Evans missed his third game of the season after playing three minutes in the team’s 59-53 loss to Delaware Tuesday.
“I felt very comfortable out there,” Jones said. “I had been running it in practice, so I thought, ‘What’s the difference?’ It’s just a big crowd of people. There is no difference.”
Virginia opened the game with three turnovers and three missed shots in its first five possessions and trailed 4-0 in the opening minutes. With 17:09 remaining in the first half, Nolte scored the team’s first points on a three-pointer from the left wing. From that point on, the Cavaliers looked nothing like the team that had shot just 22 percent from the field in the first half against Delaware Tuesday evening.
The Cavaliers closed the first half on a 41-7 run to take an insurmountable 44-13 lead into the halftime break. Virginia’s 31-point lead at halftime was its largest since January 2007 against Gonzaga. They did it all with Evans and sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon sidelined and with junior guard Joe Harris — who had led the team in scoring each of the first three games — chipping in just seven points.
“I don’t want to blame anything on youth, but we are still trying to figure this team out,” Mitchell said of the team’s 1-2 start. “I feel like we have a good team, but we have a lot of steps to take. I feel like we took a big one tonight.”
Seattle used full-court pressure almost the entire game against short-handed Virginia to try to disrupt the team’s offensive rhythm. But the Cavaliers remained composed throughout the first half, passing out of the press and quickly getting into their half-court sets. Virginia made 15-of-29 first-half field goals, repeatedly finding open looks for Nolte and Tobey.
One play midway through the first half, Tobey dished to a cutting Nolte along the baseline and Nolte finished with a two-handed slam to give Virginia a 17-8 lead with 12:18 remaining in the first half. The freshmen forwards combined to score six points amid an 11-0 run that gave the Cavaliers a 15-point lead.
But Mitchell was the key to the team’s dominant first half, repeatedly rebounding teammates’ misses and finishing in the lane. Mitchell scored his 10 points on an efficient 4-of-5 shooting with five offensive rebounds in the period.
“I thought Akil was very active,” Bennett said. “He’s gotten better. When he understands that he can be a difference maker on the glass, that’s huge.”
The breakout performance offensively overshadowed a characteristically impressive defensive showing. Seattle made just 15-of-59 field goals for the game and committed 19 turnovers. The Redhawks’ 20 percent shooting in the first half was the lowest by a Cavalier opponent since February 2006. It was the third time this season that Virginia held its opponent under 60 points.
“Sure they were cold, but most of those [shots] were with a hand in the face, we contested and took care of the lane,” Bennett said. “We tried to prepare well in practice and as a team like ours, keep building in the areas you know you need to and not get too high and not get too low. I think that’s important when you have an inexperienced team.”
The blowout win allowed Bennett to limit his rotation players’ minutes in advance of a back-to-back set in the NIT Season Tip-Off Consolation bracket Monday against Lamar and Tuesday against North Texas. It also buoyed Mitchell’s confidence as he looks for his third consecutive double-double and fourth of his career Monday.
“My role as a leader this year has helped me be confident,” Mitchell said. “In order for this team to be successful, I had to be confident. To lead them, I had to believe in myself first. This game has been huge for us, for the guys to understand that if we play our system and we play it right, we will get wins.”